The Phillies' offense exploded Thursday night in St. Louis, batting around vs. Jake Westbrook in the first, getting three RBIs apiece from Freddy Galvis and Shane Victorino, and scoring 10 runs in all. Whether that was one shining moment or the start of more positive production remains to be seen. But the overall state of the Phils' offense is such that these words were uttered by Roy Halladay the other day: "He's our best player."
Ryan Howard? No, he's still got that aching Achilles. Chase Utley? No, he's still kneeling to the needs of his knees. Hunter Pence? No, he's struggling with runners in scoring position. Jimmy Rollins? No, he's hitting .233. Hector Luna? All right, now you're just being silly. The answer is Carlos Ruiz. The man they call "Chooch" is, as Halladay said, the Phillies' best player in the present tense, and that speaks to an offense trying to find its way. Now, let's be clear. This is no knock on Ruiz, who is batting .366 with a 1.007 OPS. He's an excellent catcher, and he is having a truly terrific season that ought to earn him his first All-Star selection. He seems to have gained inspiration from the absences of Howard and Utley. It's as if he's single-handedly trying to carry this club. "You don't really look to the catcher to be the guy who has the big bat," Cole Hamels said. "But he's pulling it out, and it's really nice to see." Of course, catchers often tend to wear down over the course of the long year, and we should all be able to agree that for the five-time defending National League East champs to remain among the NL's elite, they can't live off Chooch alone. And so these are unsettled and unsettling times for the Phils, who, despite consecutive wins, remain in last place in the NL East with a 23-23 record. Not even one of the greatest front ends of a rotation ever assembled can be counted on to account for the overall offensive trouble that has taken place on an all-too-consistent basis. Oh, sure, the Phillies have been a lot more productive in May than they were in April, when they were outscored by all but five Major League teams. But they've still had their share of situational struggles, simply because their lineup is largely devoid of proven run producers. According to baseball-reference.com, they've had a runner at third with less than two outs 82 times this season and brought those runners home just 31 times, for a 38-percent success rate that ranks last in the Majors. "Execution," Cliff Lee said. "Basic execution. That's what's got us." Lee would know. The 2.86 runs of support he's getting per outing is the lowest average among qualified starters. And so Lee, Hamels and Halladay (who is off to his roughest start in five years) are feeling more pressure to perform than ever. "There are a lot of guys, including myself, who are trying to carry the weight of the team," Halladay said. "You can't play that way, and I think you've seen that. Everybody's trying to pick up slack for what we may not be doing, and guys we're missing and all that. That only seems to compound the problem." Unfortunately, it's a problem with no immediate solution. The timetables for the returns of Howard and Utley remain nebulous, and their absence has completely altered the look of this lineup and the roles of those in it. "You take those two guys out of any lineup, and I don't care how deep your team is, it's going to suffer," said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "The biggest thing -- and we've had to deal with it, too -- is you start putting guys in parts of the order that they're not used to. You realize how hard it is to hit three, four or five in the big leagues. You get pitched a lot differently than when you're hitting sixth." And with a miscast middle of the order has come an all-too-aggressive mindset among those counted on to make this offense sing. "Absolutely," Pence said. "And I'm the No. 1 candidate of pressing right now and trying too hard and trying to do too much." Pence is a good hitter, but a streaky one. And he's been mired in a brutal slump with runners in scoring position. "It's a combination of bad luck and some bad batting, as well," Pence said. "You've got to take responsibility. I've swung at some bad pitches -- a lot of bad pitches, actually. I've also had some walks. But right now, it feels like every time a runner is in scoring position, something is against me, whether I have a good at-bat or a bad at-bat." As it stands, the only guy in this lineup putting up consistently good and impactful at-bats is Ruiz. And even when Howard and/or Utley return, there is no telling what kind of impact they'll be physically able to make. So, again, it's unsettled, and it's unsettling, because the NL East has obviously improved, and the Phillies aren't used to being in this position. But the parity of the division is such that the Phils' early troubles haven't buried them at all. "With all they've been through," said Zimmerman, "they're still right around .500. If they get those guys back, they have the pitching, and they could take off." For now, without those two key pieces in the lineup, they need some guys not named Ruiz to step up like they did Thursday night.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.